Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Judge Judged in our Place

People sometimes ask whether Barth believed in penal substitution, the doctrine which maintains that Christ endured on the cross the punishment which sinners deserve.  Since this doctrine has (rightly, in my view; those who deny it are typically unorthodox on other important points) become something of a shibboleth in evangelical circles, a lot rides on the answer.  Did Barth believe that Jesus bore the wrath of God deserved by sinners, in their place?  Did he believe that the death of Christ was a vicarious death, the righteous taking the punishment which the sinful deserved?

Isenheim Altarpiece

Well, the short answer is yes.  "My turning from God is followed by God's annihilating turning from me.  When it is resisted His love works itself out as death-dealing wrath.  If Jesus Christ has followed our way as sinners to the end to which it leads, in outer darkness, then we can say with that passage from the Old Testament [Isaiah 53] that He has suffered this punishment of ours."  (CD IV/1, 253)

But of course with Barth things are rarely quite so simple!  The yes has to be qualified with a 'but'.  In Barth's understanding, the element of punishment in the cross is not the central element.  It is true that the death which Christ endures is our death, the penalty for our sin.  It is true that "He has suffered what we ought to have suffered so that we do not have to suffer it, the destruction to which we have fallen victim by our guilt, the punishment which we deserve" - and you won't find a much clearer statement of penal substitution than that!  But the deeper thing, the more ultimate thing, is that "in the death and suffering of Jesus Christ it has come to pass that in His own person He has made an end of us as sinners and therefore of sin itself by going to death as the One who took our place as sinners."

For Barth there certainly is a transaction in the atonement - our sin vicariously borne by Christ - but the transaction rests on a more decisive thing - our being-as-sinners vicariously borne by Christ, and in his death borne all the way to destruction.  Atonement is about reconciliation.  What stands in the way of my relationship with a holy God?  Not merely my guilt, but my whole being as a person given over to sin and rebellion.  In Christ, that sinful person has been put to death, and therefore removed.  "One died for all, therefore all died" (2 Cor 5:14).

The action of God in the death of Christ is not to avoid the judgement and the necessary death of sinful man, but to carry out the sentence, fully and completely, but vicariously, in Jesus Christ.  The penal aspect of substitution rests on something deeper - if you like, an ontological substitution, a being in our place which, by walking the sinners road all the way to death and destruction, crowds the sinner out of his place and establishes space for a new creation by faith in the resurrected Jesus.

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